Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.
1 Timothy 3:11 ESV
This verse is less controversial than 1 Timothy 2:12, but there seems to be more interpretational disagreement within the evangelical camp over this verse than that one. Paul is obviously talking about women here and has sandwiched the discussion in between qualifications for the office of deacon, so that leaves us asking a few questions. Is Paul now giving qualifications for deacons’ wives? Or is Paul opening up the office of deacon to women as well as men? Let’s address the evidence.
First, the matter is complicated by the Greek text. The ESV translates their wives, but no possessive pronoun exists in the Greek. The word is simply wives, which in Greek is the same word for women. A more literal translation, therefore, would be either wives likewise or women likewise. In this, the NASB furthers its reputation for being the most literal English translation. The answer, then, is not as simple as the ESV makes it seem.
With the word their absent in the Greek, this verse is probably not referencing the wives of deacons, but rather female deacons, or deaconesses. First, it seems unlikely that Paul would provide qualifications for deacons’ wives, while not mentioning any for elders’ wives. Second, the use of the word likewise is used in the same manner as it was for male deacons in verse 8, designating similarity to a new group, which Paul also does twice in Titus (2:3, 6). If this is true then, Paul is asserting that deaconess is 1) an office of the church, 2) a noble task, and 3) a noble aspiration for women.
Of course, one of the main difficulties for this verse being in reference to deaconesses is why Paul would place qualifications for deaconesses in the middle of qualifications for deacons, especially when the very next verse states that a deacon must the husband of one wife. Allison answers this question as follows:
This could also explain why Paul “interrupts” the natural flow of his presentation at this point: he first covers the qualifications that apply generally for men deacons (1 Tim. 3:8-10), then switches to his discussion of women deacons (v. 11). He next addresses a specific qualification for men deacons: they must be “the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well” (v. 12). Obviously, this qualification would not apply to women deacons; thus, Paul places this specific qualification after his discussion of the general qualifications for both groups. But what about these women deacons? Do they not need to be “the wife of one husband, managing their children and their own households well?” The absence of such discussion would seem to lend support for the first view that Paul is talking about the wives of deacons. Yet we must remember that a bit earlier, Paul has dealt with the responsibilities of women in the church in relation to their domestic responsibilities: in 2:15, he assures women that they can avoid being deceived by the evil one (“saved” from Satanic attack, a major theme of the Pastoral Epistles; 1 Tim. 1:20; 3:6-7; 4:1; 5:14-15; 2 Tim. 2:26)—and thus not repeat the transgression of Eve (1 Tim. 2:14)—by carrying out their God-ordained domestic roles (“through childbearing,” that is, having and nurturing children) and persevering in Christlikeness (“if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control”). As these are instructions for all women in the church generally speaking, they are certainly instructions for women deacons as a subset of that larger group. Thus, Paul does not need to discuss this qualification for deaconesses in 3:11; he has already covered it with regard to women generally.Sojourners and Strangers, 245.
Next is the issue of title. Why would Paul say women instead of deaconess? Allison observes that a feminine version of deacon did not exist in Paul’s day (246). Therefore, Paul could only use the word women in order to distinguish deaconesses from their male counterparts. Strauch argues against deaconesses (favoring the wife interpretation) by asking why Paul includes this verse about women deacons if they are a part of the same office. “Why after listing five qualifications for “deacons” that could include males or females, does Paul in verse 11 repeat nearly the same qualifications for women deacons? That would be like saying that all nurses must attend four years of college and then singling out male nurse and repeating that male nurse must attend four years of college with a slightly different terminology” (117). I would argue, however, that Paul specifically points out women in contrast to their being excluded from the office of elder. Although women are biblical prohibited from being pastors, Paul is clarifying that they may serve as deacons.
Another argument for deaconesses is found in Romans 16:1, where Paul refers to “Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae.” Servant in this verse is the Greek word for deacon. Some argue that Paul was merely calling Phoebe a servant in general, but when deacon is used generally, it is typically attached to the phrase in the Lord or of Christ. Colossians 1:7 calls Epaphras a minister of Christ, and Colossians 4:7 calls Tychicus a minister in the Lord. Yet Paul does not use these general phrases of Phoebe; instead, he calls her a servant of a particular church, namely the church at Cenchreae. It is likely then that Phoebe was a deaconess of Cenchreae’s church.
For all of these reasons, Paul is likely referring to female deacons, or deaconesses, in verse 11. But does having deaconesses contradict 1 Timothy 2:12? Allison answers this concern by saying that “Like their male counterparts, deaconesses do not have responsibilities to teach, lead, pray for the sick, and shepherd the church; those are the primary responsibilities of the elders. Accordingly deaconesses do not violate the Pauline prohibitions in 1 Timothy 2:12” (247). Of course, as we discussed in our last study, many churches have a board of deacons who function in many ways as lay elders in the church. Under that structure, it makes sense why deaconesses are not ordained within the church; they would be violating 1 Timothy 2:12. However, under the biblical responsibilities of deacons, there is no reason why women should be withheld from the office of deacon.
If Paul is not referring to deaconesses here, the only other viable option seems to be an emphasis on the importance of deacon’s wives in their ministry. As said earlier, mentioning deacon’s wives but not elder’s wives is quite odd. However, if that interpretation is correct, deacon’s wives have a specially, and biblically, designated role in the ministry of their husbands that elder’s wives do not possess. Once again, I do not think this is the best interpretation, but other than deaconesses, this is the only interpretation that holds exegetical and hermeneutical water to me.
Whether this verse is referencing deaconesses or deacon’s wives, one clarity should stand: Paul is obviously giving these women an office of leadership within the church. That is the very purpose of this verse, even though it has often been ignored. That is why biblical organization is important. When we abandon the Scripture’s authority in one area, we will inevitably begin to forsake others as well. This verse gives us a glimpse of those two extremes. On one hand, many churches go beyond Scripture by ordaining women as pastors, while on the other hand, many churches forbid women from being deacons. Both are, I believe, unbiblical.